I finished Bioshock last night. As predicted the game took an addictive toll on me, and I ended up playing for seven straight hours to finish it off. Needless to say, I’m tired. But I’m also very intrigued. Bioshock takes place in a city under the sea, developed in the 1950s but ruined shortly thereafter by genetic mutation which causes the city’s inhabitants to go crazy over the mutation drug known as ADAM. You, a plane crash survivor, wander through the city looking for answers as to your purpose, finding friends who turn enemy, fighting with old-time weapons like a tommy gun and very futuristic genetic powers like telekinesis. Perhaps most interesting, however, is that the game has a very intense choice mechanism in which you must decide to save or harvest little children, “little sisters”, who have the ADAM you need to increase your powers.

My instincts when encountering the first child, when the decision was laid out by the game, was that this was an all or nothing proposition. I knew from others that the game contained multiple endings depending on your choices, and this is a mechanism that a lot of games use (discussed in James Gee, for Deus Ex, for instance). Often games have the “Best” ending in which you have successfully chosen “right” in all scenarios, some more middle-road ending in which you have muddled your choices, and a “Bad” ending in which minimum effort was expended. In Bioshock, the girls that are available to be saved are not always available… you must actively seek out little sisters and battle a behemoth creature to save or harvest them. There are a number of the girls in each level.

As I reached the end of the game, I had chosen only to save the little sisters, but had not found all of them. In addition, the final level requires you to guard little sisters as they help you open doors. In this process, due to my ineptness, two of my saved little sisters bit the dust. After the final boss was defeated, I was pleased to see a really touching ending in which I return to the city with the little girls, they get married, and I have a family. Of course, my curiosity had been getting to me since the first encounter with a little sister, so I immediately went to YouTube to see the better ending in which all sisters were saved. Much to my pleasure, or disappointment, I had received the best ending. If you harvest any little sisters you get an ending with nuclear halocaust implied. But as long as you do not harvest any, there is only one best ending. In a way, I felt as though this was great: I had beaten the game and shown myself the best possible. In reality, I felt like the game was cheating those who had gone to the trouble to find all the sisters, and to protect them.

This experience was odd to process that, in a way, I had hoped I had lost in comparison to others because I felt they had not only objectively worked harder, but in the context of the game world, done something markedly better. It was objectively better to save more of the little girls from tommy gun shells or eternal walking with behemoth creatures, and I, as character, had failed in my duties to save them. Do I deserve my fairy-tale ending? And of those who harvested but saved some of the sisters, do they deserve the same fate of an ominous nuclear holocaust, to be branded as brutal? Designers should consider the question of the game end stratification carefully, aligning the outcome not only to work put into the game, but the actual realities incurred in the game.